Parshat V'Zot HaBracha
V'Zot HaBracha (Deuteronomy 33-34 )
The last day of the Sukkot holiday is also known as Simchat Torah, or "The Celebration of the Torah." This is because we finish the cycle of Torah readings on this day. The last portion is V'Zot HaBracha (which means "this is the blessing"). We immediately resume the cycle and read the first portion of the Book of Genesis, Bereishit ("in the beginning").
The occasion for joy is clear.
The occasion for joy is clear. What is not so clear is why this particular day was chosen as the occasion to hold this joy. There is no apparent connection between the calendar and the Five Books of Moses. Any day could have been selected as the turnover point between successive cycles of Torah reading. It is therefore appropriate to wonder why the last day of Sukkot in particular was selected.
In our prayers we describe the entire Sukkot holiday as zman simchotenu, "time/festival of joy."
Rabenu Yona in his work "Sharei Teshuva" explains that this joy is related to Yom Kippur. For the truly penitent person there is no greater joy than the feeling of being cleansed of his sins. This is not due to concern or fright about the dire consequences of sins in terms of possible punishment, although no doubt this is also a worry. But for the true ba'al teshuva the joy of atonement comes from his restored relationship with God.
The prophet Zechariah offers the following image of penance:
Then he showed me Joshua, the High Priest, standing before the angel of God, and the Satan was standing on his right to accuse him. The angel of God said to the Satan, "May God denounce you O Satan! May God who chooses Jerusalem denounce you! Indeed, this man is like a firebrand saved from a fire!" But Joshua was dressed in filthy garments as he stood before the angel. The angel spoke up and said to those standing before him, saying, "Remove the filthy garments from upon him!" Then he said to Joshua, "See, I have removed your iniquity from upon you, and dressed you with clean attire. Then I said, "Let them put a pure turban upon his head." So they put a pure turban upon his head and dressed him in clean garments… (Zechariah 3:1-6)
Every time we recite the Amidah prayer we are deemed to be standing in God's own presence. As long as we are wearing our sins, the tatters on our souls make us an eyesore in the king's palace and we also exude the putrefying stench of soiled clothing in a spiritual sense. Even if God loves us intensely, He cannot help but find our presence obnoxious.
The atonement of Yom Kippur is the equivalent of removing our tattered dirty spiritual garments and replacing them with freshly laundered pure smelling clothing. We can once again enter the Kings palace without feeling out of place. We can once again imagine that we are accepted with genuine welcome. No wonder the true penitent is overcome by a feeling of intense joy.
The Gaon of Vilna discusses the implication of Sukkot as a zman simcha from the other side. While Rabenu Yona explains the joy of Sukkot from the human side, the Gaon describes the joy from God's viewpoint.
The Sukkot holiday derives its name from the sukkah or "booth." The Talmud explains (Sukkah 11b) that the sukkah is reminiscent of the Clouds of Glory in which God enveloped us in the desert following the Exodus.
You shall dwell in sukkot [booths] for a seven day period; every citizen in Israel shall dwell in sukkot. So that your generations will know that I caused the children of Israel to dwell in sukkot when I took them from the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 23:42-43)
The picture that emerges from the Midrash is that God's Sukkot, the Clouds of Glory, were marvelous things. They provided a climate controlled environment, they were impenetrable to Israel's enemies, they were available to transport anyone who felt too tired to walk, they leveled the desert in the path of the camp, and they were a guide through it's uncharted wilderness.
They are called the Clouds of Glory because they are a manifest demonstration of God's love.
They are called the Clouds of Glory because they are a manifest demonstration of God's love and concern for the Jewish people. What greater glory could man possibly aspire to than such an obvious public demonstration of God's love? It is this demonstration of His love that God wants all succeeding generations to know about, and it is this that prompted Him to command us to observe this commandment.
The succah of today is also God's house. The Zohar refers to it as the "tent of faith." We leave our homes to dwell in the succah for seven days at God's command to demonstrate our readiness to follow Him anywhere.
But if so, asks the Gaon, how is it that we don't eat matzah in the sukkah? If the sukkah commemorates the Clouds of Glory in which God wrapped us after the Exodus, we should really build our sukkot on Passover. What is the rationale of waiting six full months and only building these sukkot after Yom Kippur. Why are they the occasion for a separate holiday when they are really part of the events of the Exodus?
CLOUDS OF GLORY
Explains the Gaon: The sukkah does not commemorate the original Clouds of Glory. The sukkah commemorates their return.
After the sin of the Golden Calf, the Clouds of Glory departed. As their purpose was to provide a palpable demonstration of God's love for Israel, in the presence of the enormous wall of misunderstanding erected between God and Israel by the immensity of the sin, they were out of place. They returned following Israel's repentance to demonstrate that God does not merely forgive us our sins on Yom Kippur, but reinstates us fully to His affections.
Indeed, He does even more.
In the prelude to the Shema, we say the following blessing every morning: "With an abundant love have You loved us, Lord our God, with exceedingly great pity have You pitied us." In the evening this same blessing begins: "With an eternal love have You loved the house of Israel, Your nation." What is implied by the words "abundant" versus "eternal"? The answer is in the following passage of the Talmud:
Rebi arranged a marriage for his son with the daughter of Rabbi Yosi ben Zimra. The agreement was that the groom would go to learn in yeshiva for twelve years before the wedding. [But] when the bride passed by in his field of vision, he stated that he would like to hold the wedding after six years. When the bride passed by once again, the groom declared that he wanted to hold the wedding before he goes away to study.
His father saw that he was embarrassed. He told his son not to feel bad as he was merely following the example of his Maker. God originally stated, You will bring them and implant them on the mount of Your heritage, the foundation of Your dwelling place that You, God, has made, the Temple My Lord that Your hands established. (Exodus 15:17)
[That is God will only build His Temple, the spiritual parallel to a human wedding, after the Jewish people are established in Israel.]
But then God said, They shall make a Sanctuary for me, so that I may dwell among them. (Exodus 25:8)
[That is, God was so overcome by the power of His love that He decided not to wait and instructed the Jewish people to construct the Tabernacle in the desert.] (Ketubot 62b)
This instruction was issued on the day after Yom Kippur, the 11th day of Tishrei. The Jewish people brought Moses their donations of materials on the 12th and 13th; on the 14th Moses distributed the materials to the artisans; on the 15th the construction began, and that is the first day of Sukkoth, because that is the day that the Clouds of Glory returned.
The change in God's plan was brought about by the increased intensity of His love for the Jewish people. God loved them more after Yom Kippur (after the reconciliation) than He loved them originally before the sin of the Golden Calf took place.
The place where the ba'al teshuva stands, the tzadik who never sinned and repented cannot stand. (Brachot 34b)
God loves the Jewish people with an eternal love regardless of the level of misunderstandings that separate them on the surface. But when they repent, He loves them so intensely that He is unable to restrain Himself from the outward expression of His love. This is the meaning of zman simchotenu from God's side.
Thus the sukkah represents God's desire to envelop the penitent Jewish people in the warm embrace of His Clouds of Glory. Embracing someone who is dressed in soiled clothes and smells bad is out of the question, even if that someone is beloved. The joy of Sukkot is a combination of the two factors mentioned by the Gaon and Rabenu Yona. It is the combination of these two ideas which place us comfortably in God's warm embrace and creates the feeling of spiritual joy that Sukkot stands for.
We were not created to spend our lives safely wrapped in God's embrace.
But all good things must come to an end. We were not created to spend our lives safely wrapped in God's embrace. Armed with the demonstration of His love it is our job to face the darkness of winter and do our best to contend with the evil that is in ourselves and in the world with the power of our own free will. The High Holidays are the spiritual inputs we require to replenish our strength to face the battle once again refreshed and recharged. We sit in God's sukkah for only seven days.
Then comes the eighth day.
…on the eighth day there shall be a holy convocation for you and you shall offer a fire-offering to God, it is an assembly, you shall not do any laborious work. (Leviticus 23:36)
The word assembly in Hebrew is azeret also meaning something held back.
Rashi: "I held you back with me; like a king who invited his children to a party lasting so many days; when it came time to leave, he said, 'My children, please stay with me for one more day, it is difficult for me to bear your departure.'"
The last day of Sukkot is there for no other reason than because it is difficult for God to part with us and for us to part from Him. We need a day to face the prospect and prepare. This is the day the Jewish people has chosen as being the most appropriate day on which to read Parshat Zot Habracha, the last portion of the Torah and to begin reading the Torah all over.
There are really two things that keep the Jewish people strongly connected to God even when they are out of His immediate presence. When life returns to normal and God seems far away in heaven, we still have God's Torah and Moses' bracha, "blessing."
The word bracha in Hebrew originates from the word breicha meaning "well" or "spring."
Unlike other people who draw their life force from the earth and are referred to as the umot haolam, "the nations of the earth," we, the Jewish people, have to draw our energy from our connection with God.
Abraham was not able to have any children until God took him out from under the power of the stars that govern the distribution of the forces of nature.
And he took him outside, and said, "Gaze now toward the heavens and count the stars if you are able to count them!" And He said to him, "So shall your offspring be!" (Genesis 15:5)
Rashi: "He took him out of the space of the world and raised him above the stars."
We declare twice a day in the Shema that earthly success for us depends on our connection to God and the closeness of our relationship:
And it will come to pass that if you continually hearken to My commandments that I command you today … then I will provide for you…
We have no natural homeland on the earth as other peoples do. Our place is the land of Israel which needs to be given to us by God and which we can only hold on to as long as we do not turn to other forces. (This is also stated in the Shema prayer.)
CONNECTION TO GOD
Our connection to God is no luxury for us; it is essential to our very survival. This connection is through our roots, our ancestors. Thus the two people who offer their blessings to us in the Torah are Jacob, the last of our Patriarchs (in Parshat Vayechi), and Moses our teacher (in Parshat Zot Habracha.)
These blessings are essentially the same, each focusing on the twelve tribes of Israel. Together these blessings drive home the idea that our life force flows to us from the spiritual springs that connect to God through the links of the chain of generations.
The correspondence between our connection to the Torah and our continued survival is obvious.
The correspondence between our connection to the Torah and our continued survival is even more obvious. Even the Jews who have lost all vestige of this connection readily admit that the study of the Torah through the ages and the observance of its commandments is solely responsible for the survival of the Jewish people as a distinct cultural entity through all the tribulations of our 2000 year Diaspora.
But is it any different now? The world hasn't changed at all in this regard. No state, even if it be Israel, no national army, even if Jewish, will preserve the integrity or the identity of the Jewish people without the Torah. Those who abandon the practice of learning it and of following its commandments are consigning the Jewish people to oblivion.
THE TORAH CONNECTION
We fill the day of the annual departure from God's embrace marking the end of the High Holidays with two things: 1) with celebrating our connection to the Torah, and 2) with injecting ourselves with a fresh dose of Moses' blessings.
Jewish tradition has never equated the idea of Simcha with the secular concept of happiness. The word for that idea is osher, not Simcha. Simcha is reserved for the occasions that allow us to surmount our physical limitations and connect ourselves with a realm that is more immense and enduring than the temporary existence we lead here.
A Bris is a simcha not because a child was born but because we have managed to bring another soul into the covenant of Abraham. A Bar or Bat Mitzva is a simcha because another Jew has reached the age of connection to Torah observance. A wedding is a simcha because two souls have united in a way that brings the presence of God into the world through another Jewish home. Between the ish, the man, and the ishah, the woman, there is a yud and a hei signifying God's holy name and indicating a fresh manifestation of His presence in their union.
Existence comes in three dimensions: Olam, Shana, Nefesh, meaning: universe, time, and soul. On Simchat Torah we see the connection to the eternal in all three ways.
- The universe connects through the renewal of Torah
- So says God, "If not for My covenant [which must be learned and observed] day and night, I would never have established the laws [of nature which govern] heaven and the earth." (Jeremiah 33:25)
- Time connects through the concept of the day. God says "Please remain with Me for one more day as I find it very difficult to part with you."
- The soul connects through Moses' blessings. There can be no greater simcha than a day which ties us so firmly to the eternal.
The Torah Portion for Saturday, October 6 is that of Sukkot.
Parshat Zot Ha'bracha will be read on Simchat Torah, which is on Wednessday, October 10 outside of Israel, and Tuesday, October 9 in Israel.